The definition of satire reads “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Now that’s all good and fine, but what happens when the topical issues in question took place during the height of Nazi power in 1940s Germany? Moviegoers today are surely to get offended, right? Probably. Fortunately for Jojo Rabbit, however, this is a brilliant use of satire that pays respect to history and strikes unexpected emotional chords.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi (of Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows), the film stars debut actor Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, a young boy eager to serve his country in the Hitler youth camp. Absorbed by the positive messages that the media tells him about his country’s leader, Jojo displays an unquestioning (and rather alarming for a child) allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi party. But soon, everything that Jojo thinks he knows about the world is tilted on its head when he discovers that his mother, Rosie (the always great Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.
Right away, I must mention how impressive the casting is for this film. Davis is enjoyably exuberant in his first role, winning the hearts of audiences with his charisma and energy. Though his passion is undoubtedly misguided, it’s clear that he’s not a bad kid, he just needs to be more informed about the world around him. Likewise, Johansson is equally unwavering in her conviction that, as she puts it, “love is the strongest thing in the world.” McKenzie is just as good, giving a performance whose outward confidence and defiance mask understandable fear.
Other credible names in the cast include the likes of Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), and Stephen Merchant (actor in Logan and producer of The Office). But easily the most daring performer (and the one who has garnered the most controversy at the Toronto Film Festival) is Waititi himself as Adolf Hitler. Or more specifically, an “imaginary friend” version of Hitler that Jojo interacts with. Waititi is absurdly buffoonish in the role, dancing about and offering young Jojo advice that couldn’t possibly be taken sensibly. And while I do understand the apprehension that some may have with this depiction of such a diabolical historical figure, I think it works because this isn’t the real Hitler, but rather a young boy’s idolized perception of him. If you’re harboring apprehension about historical representation even as you read this, I encourage you to give this one a shot. The script hilariously exaggerates the man and his beliefs as a way to say to the audience that his hateful way of thinking yields no positive results.
Speaking of hilarity, this is a really funny movie. I found myself laughing pretty hard in the first act of the story, but the laughs are never insensitive or distasteful towards the grim historical events at play. This film can easily be compared to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a film that daringly satirized Hitler during the height of his power, and did so to convey a genuine message of love and kindness. With that said, however, be prepared to bring tissues. I’m not saying that you’ll need them a lot, but you might be using them.
I think that the story, theme, and characters are the most important aspects of any film, and in the case of this one, those elements are in top shape. But it’s also worth giving a quick mention to the costumes, set design, and music. The visual tools of costumes and sets (designed by Mayes C. Rubeo of Apocalypto and Avatar, and Nora Sopková, respectively) do a lot to represent the era with as much authenticity as possible.
Likewise, the music adds a good flavor of personality to the film, implementing the interesting choice of contributing German renditions of upbeat pop tunes by the Beatles, the Monkees, and David Bowie. But what ties it all together beautifully is the original score composed by the brilliant Michael Giacchino (whose previous credits include Lost, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and War for the Planet of the Apes).
Overall, Jojo Rabbit is a genuinely delightful film with a beautiful message about tolerance and acceptance, and expert performances to convey that message. I found myself laughing and (almost) crying at all the right moments, with no emotional beat missed. It’s currently playing in select theaters, and I highly recommend seeing this one if it’s playing near you. I’m giving Jojo Rabbit four out of four stars.